Jung Ho Kang Will Begin His Career in the Majors as a Bat off the Bench For the Pirates

It was no surprise that Jung Ho Kang would be signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates this week. The rumors first came out last week, saying that Kang would be finalizing a deal by the middle of this week. Then there were rumors at the start of this week saying that Kang had agreed to a deal, and would be flying to Pittsburgh on Wednesday. All of that happened, and the Pirates officially announced Kang’s deal today. Terms of the deal were also announced, with Kang receiving $11 M over four years, including a $5.5 M option for a fifth year, and a $250,000 buyout.

The big question was what kind of role Kang would play. Most of the speculation was that he would start off as a utility player on the bench, and would start his career in the majors. However, there were some questions about whether he would start, due to his salary, and whether he would begin the season in the minors. Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington answered both of those questions today in a conference call with the media.

“As he comes into camp, he will very much complement our existing Major League team,” Huntington said. “We are looking forward to confirming our beliefs about him as a shortstop. He has played some third. Our people feel he has every ability in the world to play some second. But right now he’ll come into camp as a complementary player that brings a lot of bat off the bench, that brings a lot of depth, and as he transitions and as he adjusts to Major League Baseball and to the United States in general, we look forward to helping him achieve his potential, which we believe to be a quality Major League player.”

Huntington added later that Kang is looking forward to his role growing as he shows the Pirates he is ready to take on more. However, he quieted the rumors that Kang is the long-term replacement for Neil Walker, as long as he lives up to expectations.

“There’s no set script that if he becomes what we expect him to be, we’re going to trade Player X or we’re going to move Player Y,” Huntington said, responding to a question about whether Kang could replace someone in the lineup in the future.

There was a debate earlier this week about whether Kang would challenge Jordy Mercer at shortstop, sparked by a quote from Kang saying he was confident he could outplay Mercer. Huntington said that Kang is a confident player, but that the way the quote was represented is not how he said it. The quote was pieced together from a series of questions, and wasn’t a direct challenge as it sounded. Huntington added that Kang was like any other major league player that believed they could start, citing Josh Harrison as an example of a guy who believed he should be a regular for years, prior to winning that role last year.

“He understands that Josh Harrison has earned every opportunity in the world that he has,” Huntington said. “Jordy Mercer has earned every opportunity in the world that he has. Neil Walker has earned every opportunity in the world that he has. And he understands that Pedro is in a transition process. He’s aware of our history of playing guys that play well. I think if you asked any one of our players if they go to a new organization and if they can be the starter in that role, the easy answer is yes.”

As for the chances of Kang starting off his career in the minors, Huntington said there was no chance of that happening.

“We have zero intent to send him to the minor leagues,” Huntington said. “Our belief is that the best way to transition him to Major League Baseball is by playing Major League Baseball.”

Huntington left Pirate City on Wednesday to meet Kang in Pittsburgh. It was the first time he met the infielder, and he said that he was impressed with the meeting.

“He’s intelligent. He’s confident. He’s passionate,” Huntington said. “He loves the game of baseball. And he’s looking forward to coming in and helping a team take the next step to get deeper into the post-season. And he’s excited for the challenges that Major League Baseball will present him.”

The Pirates weren’t unfamiliar with Kang. They had scouted him extensively, including seeing him live multiple times, talking about him to people who played in Korea, and watching an “exhaustive” amount of video. They even have a raw projection system aimed at comparing KBO stats to the United States, which comes with the challenge that Kang is the first hitter making the jump from the KBO.

Huntington said that the Pirates liked Kang’s offensive upside, his raw power, his ability to use the whole field with power, and his versatility on the field defensively. He also added an interesting note about Kang’s ability to adjust during the game, not just from at-bat to at-bat, but from pitch to pitch.

“What also intrigues us is his ability that he shows to adjust, not only as a game plan, but to different pitches and different parts of the zone,” Huntington said. “We talked with a number of pitchers that competed against him in Korea, and there was no one way you can get him out on a consistent basis.”

Kang will go to Arizona to train with his Nexen club, due to his desire to stay in his routine. He will join the Pirates in Bradenton when Spring Training begins next month.

  • I like NH’s approach to Kang. Sets the right tone for signing future foreign free agents. Doesn’t promise him more than Harrison’s opportunity last year. Let’s see how Kang seizes the opportunity.

    • I thought the narrative was that Harrison needed to be given full-time work in order to reach his potential?

      Harrison spent roughly three years in the role Huntington described for Kang without doing much of anything at all.

      • That’s a fair question. I think in retrospect Hurdle and Huntington would like to have played J-HAY more consistently earlier. But they didn’t. If J-HAY continues last year’s production he projects as one of the top 3B men in MLB. Who would have thought? I didn’t, so I can’t blame management. Will he continue to excel and not regress much? I think so based on his play, let’s hope.

        So how should the experience with J-HAY influence the handling of Kang? That’s a hard question, which probably shouldn’t be addressed seriously until Kang demonstrates on the field in the Spring and first few months of the season what he is all about. I am not too excited about trying to project Korean stats into MLB. Too many unanswered questions, and Kang was probably a “big fish in a small pond” and so projections based on league averages probably aren’t that relevant to what to expect from him anyway. If Cutch had artificially been restrained back in AA for six years after he left how many homers would he have hit in Altoona last year? My enthusiasm for Kang is based on what I saw on his highlight tapes, both offensively and defensively. He looked like a player of similar ability to Mercer or Walker, or for that matter J-Hay. Of course we didn’t see the blooper tapes if there were any. But the Pirates scouts have been doing a decent job recently. I am willing to trust their evaluation until Kang demonstrates what he can do.

        Where will Kang fit best? Good question. Mercer is the weakest offensive link. Maybe Kang sees some time at SS against RHP to see what he can do. Maybe Kang plays 3B when J-Hay plays RF, spelling Polanco against some LHP. I am just excited to see how it will all work out.

        • Thanks for the reply (also, love your name!).

          I share your apprehension with projecting statistics from other leagues, or even the minor leagues for that matter. I can appreciate the effort, and think there is some value to them, but I don’t think they do a good enough job looking at certain traits that can truly be fatal flaws covered up by inferior competition.

          To my eye, Kang looks loose athletic enough at the plate to make adjustments on pitches, and that seems to be something the Pirates like as well. The swing certainly is not traditional, but he seems to be able to find the ball, regardless.

          Looking forward to seeing how this plays out, for sure.

          • I agree. Normally that high left leg kick would be worrisome, too many parts in motion, and you’d think he’d have trouble keeping his head still and staying on a good slider. That’s my greatest concern about him rather than his defense. But pitchers who have faced him say he makes adjustments and that there isn’t a consistent hole in his swing. Hopefully that stays true as he steps up against better MLB pitching talent.

  • It is a good thing that Kang can go to Arizona and practice with his Korean team before ST, kind of gives him 2 spring trainings in a row. I wonder how much if any input (Coaches/Scouts) will have in Arizona.

  • Great plan for him in January. Routine spring with his Korean team, then to Spring Training to get a ton of at bats. Bet he plays all over the IF just about every day. Should be able to get him 15-20 ab/week when the season starts. Adjusting to the lifestyle of one city with one home would be enough of an adjustment than sending him to Indy for a few weeks, then back up.
    That said, totally agree with Foo, 1-April would get him a chance to visit the Hoosier State.

    • I wonder if they still would have made the Sean Rodriguez deal if they new Kang would be signed?

      • Fair question, but I sure as heck hope the answer would still be “yes”.

        • Basically S-Rod moves down one on the hitter depth chart to the last guy on the roster of all the hitters. The only thing Kang possibly could do is leave the Pirates without an above average fielding SS off the bench with Sellers or Florimon or the other guy Nunez or whatever his name is not being on the roster. This kid of makes Mercer more valuable in a way whether he is playing everyday or coming off the bench. I do think if Kang proves to be a below average SS and Mercer is hitting at around his career averages or higher he will be tough to get out of the lineup because of his defense.

          • One would hope that even if Kang signed day 1 of the offseason, PIT wouldnt want to roll with a Florimon type. Rodriguez brings decent yet not amazing defense as well as doing that at multiple spots. With Mercer having had a few seasons that establish him as the OD starter, the team can (and thank god has) moved on from seeing a need for an all defense middle infielder. Barmes was one thing, but the day i forgot having watched John McDonald play SS wont come soon enough.

          • Well said, guys.

  • formerdraftpick
    January 17, 2015 5:42 am

    I know he doesn’t want to move Player X or Y, but you do have to ask, to accommodate the 40-man roster, who is on the DFA bubble? Rob Scahill, Elmore, Florimon, or possibly Sellers? Or is a minor trade in the midst?

  • Lee Foo Rug Bug
    January 16, 2015 6:35 pm

    If he goes 1 for April, I bet he sees Indy.

Menu